However, I figured I could at least add my name to the list of people available to do pulpit supply on the district. After a few Sundays here and there at various churches, we were called upon to be the back-up for the interim pastor at Countryside Church of the Nazarene. We loved the church and the people, but becoming pastors really wasn't even on our radar at that time. After interviewing some candidates, the church contacted us and asked if we would consider interviewing. We decided to simply say yes and trust the discernment of the church as we walked through each step of the process. Surprisingly, the church decided they wanted us as co-pastors--even though my husband still works a full-time job, and I was six months pregnant! These last two years have been a blessing as our church has taught us how to be pastors. We're still learning, and we are excited about the days ahead.
CPL: What are the benefits and joys of serving a rural church?
There certainly are benefits and joys, although in some ways the benefits I experience on a day-to-day basis have less to do with the church itself and are more just the benefits of living in a rural community. We fell in love with the beauty of this area, and I am surprised by it every day.
I appreciate this question, but I don't want to sugarcoat the challenges facing rural communities in our country. In many ways, churches have a difficult challenge ahead of them to learn how to stay after everyone else goes. The town that is our address is actually about fifteen minutes away from our church and even that town has a population of only 297 people. There are no longer any restaurants, grocery stores, libraries, medical providers, or even factories that serve the area surrounding our church. Everyone either farms or leaves to go to work, and everyone is forced to go elsewhere to buy basic necessities. Even though I grew up in a small town in Indiana, I have never experienced the extent of isolation and disconnection I've found in this community. Many rural communities have extremely high rates of depression, suicide, drug addiction, and domestic violence--much of that stemming, in my opinion, from the hopelessness of those left behind by a world moving on without them. I've been shocked to learn about the working conditions and wages for blue collar workers who stay in the area (rather than traveling into Kansas City). What is the role of the church when everyone else leaves? I think our pastors who choose to serve in rural areas will have to draw deeply on the creativity of our creator God to discern how to marshal limited resources to meet these abundant needs.
I also believe that in many ways, pastors of rural churches will experience even more of the "post-Christian" culture than those in larger, more stable churches in more economically secure areas. As one of my congregants astutely observed, everyone here has already made a decision--either they go to the church they like, or they don't go to church--and they aren't interested in revisiting the question. The rural church must move beyond fancy advertisements or trendy worship music to have any kind of significant impact in our community for the kingdom of God.
CPL: What are the benefits and joys of serving a small church?
This is a much easier question to answer! It is such a blessing to know and be known. No one goes unnoticed. (Maybe that's not so great for anyone who doesn't want to be noticed.) I love the opportunities for our people to serve in ways that stretch and challenge them, especially our teens and children. And we have a lot of fun together. We can all gather in someone's house for a game night. We can all go camping for the weekend. We can easily put together a potluck meal and sit and fellowship together after the Sunday service. I'm not sure that any of these things are impossible with larger churches, but in my experience, they come a lot more easily in small churches.
CPL: How do you prepare for the sermon each week? What might a typical week look like for you (writing the sermon).
I'm still waiting for a typical week! My circumstances are a little unique because my time is split between my work for the church and taking care of two toddlers. I might find myself sitting on the front porch reading a commentary while being interrupted every few minutes by a shout of, "Mom! Watch this!"
In general, though, I start my week by getting familiar with the Scripture. I may read through it even as early as Sunday afternoon. If not Monday, I get to know the passage well on Tuesday so that I can just start turning it over in my mind as I go about my other tasks. I usually try to squeeze in some time on Wednesday or Thursday to at least read one or two commentaries, but sometimes that doesn't happen until Friday morning (when the kids are at daycare). On Friday, I do my final outline and then write out a manuscript. I read through it and make last minute changes either Saturday evening or Sunday morning (again with frequent interruptions from kiddos).
In all honesty, I would not recommend this schedule to other pastors. Too much of the time I am either rushed and/or distracted in each step of preparation. But I want to be transparent because I believe strongly that too often we look at the circumstances of our lives and decide that there simply isn't enough time right now to say yes to the call we feel from God. Maybe there isn't enough time. Maybe our circumstances could be better. But God is faithful in all seasons and when he calls us, he will give us what we need to serve him no matter what challenges we face.
CPL: What is the biggest challenge you face when preaching in this setting? If any?
Personally, I struggle more than anything with hopelessness. I see areas across the country that are vibrant, growing, filled with excitement. What would it be like to be surrounded by that kind of energy and to see people bringing it into the church? But our church, like so many of the families who surround us, is hanging on by a thread. It feels like we are always one calamity away from going under--again, just like many of the families and farms around us. Just as many families see the next generation leaving to pursue better jobs in better areas and wonder about their future, I wonder about the future of our church as more and more people depart for the cities.
The biggest challenge of preaching in this climate is to separate material success from the good news of the Gospel. The reality for my congregation is that material success will probably always be something we see on tv and witness when we travel to the suburbs to shop but always just out of our reach. I am confident of God's faithfulness to bless us in other ways, but that means that we will always be out of the step with "the American Dream," and that is just as difficult for me to embrace for my own life as it is to preach to others. I believe that there is hope for those suffering from depression, addiction, and generational violence, but often that hope will not mean relief from the oppression of poverty that plagues so many rural areas. Just as visionaries such as Shane Claiborne have advocated for "the simple way" in urban areas, rural churches must rise up to the same challenge to live side-by-side with our rural neighbors who suffer, and that's a hard word.
Marissa is a 2013 grad of NTS and Co-Pastor at Countryside Church of the Nazarene.